Why Don’t Men Give Each Other Birthday Gifts?

The simple art of gift-giving is lost between adult men. We can do better.

April 18, 2024 7:22 am
An illustration of one man handing a birthday gift to another. We take a look at the art of gift-giving among adult men, and how they can do better.
Do you give presents to your guy friends? If you're like most men, we already know the answer.
Danica Killelea

During the month of April, we’re publishing a series of interviews, essays, advice columns and reported features about the male friendship crisis in the U.S., a particularly troubling slice of the country’s larger loneliness epidemic. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so we’re breaking it down from all angles in The Male Friendship Equation.

A TikTok from earlier this year expertly lampooned the male aversion to birthday affection, with a series of increasingly ridiculous substitutions for the customary “happy birthday”:

  • “Wishes and winning, bro”
  • “Kudos on another life chapter”
  • “Props to your solar expedition”

And my personal favorite, the simple yet effective: “Many balloons.” The video has 2.6 million likes, plus thousands of users cry-laughing in the comments, so it’s clearly touched on something resonant and familiar.

In so many words? Men are super weird about birthdays. Like tacking a “man” to the end of “I love you,” many of us can’t acknowledge or celebrate the birthday of a beloved friend the normal way. We have to approach it from a distance, our eyes squinted, then sidle up as close as possible before abruptly dancing around the point. It’s easier that way. Safer. Right?

This gendered apprehension extends to birthday gift-giving, too. While women (not all, but many) typically arrange annual presents for their intimate friends, the practice is an anomaly amongst men.

Sure, there’s more internet documentation of men asking whether it’s “okay” for them to give their male friends something for their birthdays than hard survey data on the topic, but I took some anecdotal straw polls, and the results were unsurprising. Most men don’t give any of their friends birthday presents. But they also don’t expect to receive any in return.

Is this a crisis? Not exactly — but it does present an interesting paradigm for interrogating the male psyche and social norms. What do men lose, and what we can learn, from a life with “many balloons” and few gifts?

We’re Men. Of Course We Don’t Look Each Other in the Eye.
Sitting at the bar, watching the game, driving up the fairway. What can we learn from the male preference for side-by-side interaction?

The Weight of Expectations

Why don’t men get each other birthday gifts? For context, it might help to look at the gifts men are giving — specifically to their significant others.

I was struck by a snippet from a Los Angeles Times article, written back in 1995, titled “Commitments: Sometimes, Men Don’t Get the Gift Thing.” It reads: “To women, gifts are about love, says Dr. Nada Stotland, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Chicago. To men, gifts more often are chores, ‘and you buy either something somebody needs…or it’s a social obligation, and you get something faintly suitable.’”

That analysis feels oddly accurate, even 30 years later. It tracks with sentiments expressed in the subreddit r/TwoXChromosomes, in which women occasionally share horror stories of boyfriends or husbands struggling to drum up gifts that feel personal, special or thoughtful.

For some of us men, it’s easier to just spend a lot of money. We figure that throwing dollars at the problem will create a surefire “ta-da!” moment on the actual birthday. But this can create two issues: A) studies indicate women don’t always appreciate “romantic luxury gifts,” citing that it can create relationship power imbalances, while B) this puts perennial pressure on men; according to one survey, 41% of men felt more pressure to spend money on their partners (compared to 26% for women), while 60% of men admitted they hide this spending from their significant others.

If gift-giving starts to feel like an extreme sport, costing you hours of sleep and thousands of dollars, why would you feel inclined to do more of it?

“I Don’t Need Anything, Thanks”

This paints a pretty bleak picture of men, but we’re not all Neanderthal dads from Bud Lite commercials. Part of the male discomfort with gift-giving doesn’t derive from negligence, but from learned norms.

According to the archetypal heterosexual model, an article from Psychology Today explains, “Men are socialized to find their self-worth in taking care of women and children, to not want anything for themselves, and certainly not need anything from anyone else.”

In the “provider” sense, the masculine thing to do is never ask for anything. Which results in single men getting…nothing (especially if they’ve stopped receiving presents from parents). This sometimes results in partnered men getting “necessity gifts,” or a present that fulfills a need but doesn’t have much to say about the man’s passions or preferences — say, a new tool for the garage, golf balls or a dopp kit.

If the latter sounds similar to what the women in the r/TwoXChromosomes group are frustrated with about male gift-giving, well, that’s because it is. Many men give necessity gifts and receive them in return. But they’re more likely to hide their surprise and frustration with their realization that women aren’t omniscient, gift-giving superheroes by nature.

It can feel easier to stick with the “I don’t need anything, thanks” bit — the provider’s mantra — than to admit that you were hoping for something in particular.

It’s Easier Than You Think

The same qualities that would help you improve your gift-giving (and receiving) with a significant other, though, could help you establish gifting traditions with your male friends.

Once you learn to start giving gifts out of passion, instead of duty, and gift things based on someone’s personality or preferences, you’re naturally well-positioned to dish out some real winners to your friends. Aren’t friendships built on a bedrock of shared interests (in addition to a legacy of shared experiences)? Like Bruce Springsteen sings in “Bobby Jean,” “We liked the same music, we liked the same bands / We liked the same clothes.”

Those interests can be all over the place. I have a friend who loves the Knicks more than anyone I know. I have a friend who’s extremely proud of his indoor green thumb. I have a friend who goes to the movies three times a month. A ballcap, a succulent, a free ticket. Gifts, gifts, gifts. They’re self-evident and obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful.

The gifts’ power doesn’t just come from their personality. It also comes, ironically, from their rarity. When men aren’t receiving gifts from friends, literally anything is going to make their day.

Of course, we’re here advocating for more men to give gifts to other men, so maybe (hopefully) male gift-giving’s future potency will derive from sheer appreciation, as opposed to a cocktail of appreciation and disbelief. Regardless, in the midst of a male friendship crisis, there’s no better time to start than now.

Gifts tie us together. They confirm that we’ve been listening to each other, that we remember things about each other, that we care. In a way, it’s sort of fascinating that it’s not commonplace for adult men to give them to each other — for a demographic that struggles with expressing affection in words, gifts can make for a convenient, non-verbal totem.

Wrapping It Up

What does male gift-giving look like, in practice?

It depends on the friendship. But it can assume any form you like — and then shape-shift accordingly, depending on the nature of the relationship in question. When the alternative is giving nothing, everything should be on the table:

  • A thoughtful, not-so-pricey present with personality, like the options listed earlier (e.g., ballcap, succulent)
  • Take them out to drinks or dinner and pay
  • Tickets to a game/event on a night you know they’re free (go with them, if this makes the gift feel less “intense”)
  • Something silly: a reference to an inside joke
  • Something they need: Text their significant other and ask! This way you can knock out the “necessity gift,” while their partner can get them something more personal.

As you can see, a few of those options are ways to gently introduce the concept of gift-giving, as it’s possible, on account of social norms, that your initial gift might be met with confusion, embarrassment or nonchalance (even if, all the while, he is beaming with happiness inside).

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that giving gifts will mean you receive any in return, or that giving them gets you “closer” to whomever you give them to. But that’s okay. If everyone stands around waiting for a hug, everyone walks home chilly.

As we’ve emphasized time and time again in this Male Friendship Equation series, the best and bravest thing that you, a man, can do is act with vulnerability. Take that initial step, give a little bit of yourself — in this case a literal gift — and know you’ve done all you can.

Sometimes I’ll see those heart-wrenching videos of old, quiet men who receive a bit of unexpected kindness while out doing their chores. Someone asks how their day’s going and they’re rocked to tears — it makes the news. These things just happen as we get older, especially for men. Our worlds become smaller.

The cycle starts earlier in life. First, we lose the things that are less guaranteed than human interaction or physical touch, like birthday gifts from friends. You’re 12 and tearing through a pile of birthday presents. Then you’re 42 and you aren’t. But men don’t just deserve gifts from the men they love. They need them. It’s one day a year — and maybe it’s one pair of socks. I don’t know. But it means something.

Those socks can pack a wallop. They say: “Props to your solar expedition.” They say: “Happy birthday.” And they say: “I love you…man.”

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!